Back in England a few years ago, a Christian prayer group, led by a friend of mine, used to hold their meetings in a room upstairs in a pub.
As they weekly filed through the public bar to go upstairs, they couldn’t help noticing the forlorn figure of a man sitting at the bar, drinking scotch after scotch, never talking to anyone, just immersed in his personal cloud of misery. This especially bothered a young member of the prayer group, who started praying regularly for him, and wondered how to approach him to offer help. One day, he felt God tell him a personal message to give to this man. But it was a difficult message which did not make sense to the young person. However, after being encouraged by the prayer group leader, this young man summoned up all his courage and went over to the man by the bar, leant over towards him and whispered in his ear: “God says to you: ‘I killed my son also.’”
At these words, this man who had sat day by day, week by week, month by month alone at that bar, drinking himself to death, suddenly broke apart and started sobbing and sobbing his heart out. It turned out that he had been a collector of guns and he was showing his young son a rifle he had, when it accidentally went off and killed him. He had never, of course, been able to get over what he had done, until he heard those words spoken in his ear by that young Christian, and he was finally able to forgive himself and begin to live again.
“I killed my son also.”
We will never be able to understand our first reading today, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac or, indeed, to grasp the significance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, until we come to terms with what those words mean. First of all, Abraham lived among pagan nations, and was himself a product of such paganism, where the prevailing belief was that gods were to be obeyed and placated, above all by sacrificing to them the most precious thing you had, in most cases this would be your sons and daughters, especially your first-born. Abraham probably thought, given this cultural background, that the God who had appeared to him out of the blue and promised to make him a great nation and give him and his wife a son, even though they were both too far advanced in age for this, this God, Yahweh, was the same as all these other gods. He also demanded, after fulfilling his promise to give Abraham a son, that this son, Isaac, be sacrificed. It makes no sense to us, but it would have made perfect sense to the people of Abraham’s time, and to Abraham himself. Yahweh was his God, his God had created everything there was, therefore everything and everyone belonged first and foremost to God. God had the perfect right to demand Abraham sacrifice his most precious thing, his only son, and Abraham was determined to obey. If you read the whole story, you notice that Abraham does not stop to talk to anyone about this, not Isaac himself, nor his servants, not even his wife, Sarah. There is no-one therefore, available to talk him out of it and you and I probably know men and women who are good people, faithful people, but they get an idea in their heads, especially in terms of faith, and nothing and no-one are able to change their mind. In this case, God himself has to step in at the last moment and save Isaac by staying Abraham’s hand.
God’s words to Abraham at this point are a masterpiece of tenderness and yet correction. In essence, he says to him, “Abraham, I bless your willingness to follow your sincerely-held belief even to the absolute end of killing your son. But you must understand that I am not at all like the other gods around you. This is not ever what I want from my people. Human sacrifice is abhorrent to me. If you want to offer me something, offer me an animal in sacrifice. But ultimately what I want from my faithful ones is the sacrifice of their hearts in loving obedience to me.”
Centuries on from this key revelation, St Paul will sum it up in his letter to the Christians at Rome:
“Brothers and sisters, I appeal to you to offer your bodies to God as a living sacrifice, as your spiritual worship.”Romans 12:1
He goes on to say:
“Offer your minds to God, also, so that he can transfigure your minds away from the attitudes of the world to understand what matters to God, so that you can always discover what is God’s best will for you”.
We may think we know what God wants of us, but it may be a false belief, strongly influenced by what the world around us imagines God’s will to be.(“The will of God is of no relevance to the US Congress.”)
There is a famous saying, isn’t there, along the lines of “No-one knows the mind and heart of a man until he has walked in his footsteps.” We have, as it were, to “walk in the footsteps of God” to understand his mind and heart. And that means that we have to “walk in the footsteps” of Jesus Christ, God’s only-begotten Son. And here is another area where we can learn so much from our story in the first reading. If you read the whole story, which unfortunately is not given in the passage we have before us today, you will see that there is a very poignant scene where Abraham leaves his servants, and walks beside his son, Isaac, towards the place of sacrifice. Isaac is carrying the wood for the sacrifice, and as we follow the story, as Christians, we cannot help but think of Jesus also carrying his cross to Calvary. If Isaac represents Christ, then Abraham represents God the Father. And, if we can grasp the significance of this, if we can only imagine the heart-ache of Abraham walking alongside his son, knowing that at the end of the journey, he has to kill his own son, then we will no longer consider God to be a cold, sadistic, killer, who happily watches from heaven, as his Son, suffers endless torment, struggling to carry the cross, being heavily beaten and whipped, losing blood, getting weaker and weaker, then strung up on that cross, to die a terribly brutal and painful death, in front of a uncaring soldiers and watchers, mocking and tormenting him, until he dies.
No, God the Father did not stand by uncaringly while his Son suffered all of that. St Paul says, in his letter to the Corinthians, that “God was in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5: 19). God accompanied Jesus all the way along that awful way of the cross, and suffered in his heart. The difference between God and Abraham , was that God did not pull back, and spare his Son at the last moment. He endured the heart-break of watching his son die that agonizing death, knowing that this was the only way to get through to you and me how precious we are to God, that, rather than seeing us die the eternal death of hell we deserve because of our sins, he was willing to let his Son die that death himself. And God died in Christ for our sake. If we can grasp hold of that incredible sentence, we will know just how serious sin is, and how merciful God is.
As the Exultet at the Easter Vigil puts it so marvellously: “To rescue a slave, God gave away his Son.”
We were slaves to sin, to the devil, to hell, and God rescued us, at the cost of killing his most precious thing, his own Son “I killed my son too.” It also means that we should never ever think that when we go through sufferings, that we are on our own, that God is uncaring. No, no, no, God is walking alongside of us, suffering in spirit along with us. We are not alone.
As St Paul puts it so wonderfully in our second reading today: “If God is for us, who is against us? He, who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him give us everything else?”